These are indeed trying times for the Nigerian press. The media industry has come a long way, but its reputation as the fourth estate has continued to wane by the day.
It would seem that whatever it gains with the left hand, is being taken away by the left.
According to American novelist, humorist and part-time newspaperman, Mark Twain, the press is considered rambunctious and freewheeling, but indispensable to building a free society.
In his 1888 essay, “The American Press.” Twain had humorously observed that ‘’the devil’s aversion to holy water is a light matter compared with a despot’s dread of a newspaper that laughs.‘’
Press freedom is on the guillotine in Nigeria. ‘Legislative arrogance’ is threatening to decapitate it.
The liberty pf citizens is at stake, no thanks to efforts to cage the press with some peppering legislation.
The culprit is an oncoming law tagged, ‘’A Bill for an Act to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act. CAP N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1992’’.
Sponsors say it would remove ‘bottlenecks’ to perfect the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) by ‘’bringing it in tune with the current realities in regulating press and for related matters.’’
Under the proposed legislation, 14 clauses, preamble of the draft says, are to be amended. They are Sections 2, 3, 4, 9, 12, 16, 17, 20, 21, 28, 33, 36, 37 and the First Schedule of the principal Act. Sections 3,17 and 33 dwell on functions of the Council; the power of the Executive Secretary (of the Council) to punish an erring journalist or his organisation and an increase in the fine payable on conviction.
Punishments range from fines to reprimand, imprisonment and conviction. On the surface of it, the amendment may look harmless, but deep down they could be outrightly dangerous.
Regulate print media. Uphold truth. Disseminate press code and standards. Guide conduct of media houses and practitioners. Approve fines and penalties. And so on.
It is all part of a process that is baring fangs. We are familiar with what happened with such legislation in the broadcast arm of the media and what is happening in the corridors of the social media, particularly twittering.
The International Press Centre (IPC) has raised the alarm that the government is trying to ‘criminalise journalism’
Issues are trending as to how the bill found its way into the hands of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Values and Ethics in the first place, for consideration.
All the organs of the press organisation in the country are insisting, that they were not carried along in the drafting and consideration of the bill.
In short, they call that ‘shaving the head in your absence.’ The Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Nigeria Union of Journalists, all under the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), all say they were not carried along.
At a hearing of the House of Representatives of the Bill recently, the unions said they couldn’t even be served with the mere courtesy of being invited for consultation.
House Committee chair, Olusegun Odebunmi, rubbed salt on wound when he defended that a newspaper advert calling for a memo was sufficient as an information platform.
It all goes to show how serious the House is about the Bill.
It all goes to show how laxity has been enthroned in the overall legislative process in the country. The common logic to deduce is that if they could do that to the media where all their secrets are archived, how much more to less conspicuous causes?
What is the interest of the government on the matter?
We hope to believe the claim by the Presidency and the National Assembly that they are not part of the ‘deal’ to gag the press. We clamour for liberty. A lot is happening in the Information ministry recently that makes one to wonder where the ship is headed.
The presidency has denied involvement in the whole shady affair. We hope so. All in the name of checkmating ‘fake news’, Decree 4 may be returning. A range of punitive measures rooted in silent witch hunting. In short, censorship has dropped its pretence.
It is now wearing peacock colours. The press gag laws are primitive and anachronistic, and should have no place in constitutional democracy.
We urge the National Assembly to waste no time in throwing it out.
We believe, like Abraham Lincoln, that a free press is far desirable for the progress of society. The antithesis of a free press is anarchy and stagnation.
A nation like Nigeria, desirous of technological advancement and a leap into the comity of civilised nations, can not afford to join the gravy train of those who suppress their citizens’ voice.
Let a word be enough for the wise. Bury that toxic anti-press bill forever!